University of Cambridge > > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > A ‘fair chance’? The Catholic Irish Brigade and the British government, 1793-98.

A ‘fair chance’? The Catholic Irish Brigade and the British government, 1793-98.

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The late 18th century was a time of great social and political change in Europe, and in particular during the French Revolution and the wars that followed. In the early 1790s Britain, in an effort to maintain stability and Catholic loyalty, removed many of the restrictions placed on Roman Catholics in Ireland. Catholics regained official permission to bear arms and serve in the armed forces; thereby opening up a large manpower resource to Britain and also drawing Catholic Irishmen away from the ‘Wild Geese’ tradition of enlisting in the Catholic armies of France and Spain. Following the French Revolution and the disbandment of the famous Irish Brigade in the French service, a number of émigré Franco-Irish officers offered their services to William Pitt the Younger and the British government. An exclusively Catholic brigade was formed of these officers, along with newly recruited Irishmen. The British government believed it was giving the Catholics of Ireland a ‘fair chance’ to display both their loyalty and ability, but the reality was more complicated.

This paper examines this less well-known brigade, which as a result of Irish Protestant distrust was excluded from service anywhere in Europe, and forced to serve in the West Indies and Nova Scotia. Subjects discussed include the challenges encountered in establishing the brigade, Irish Protestant opposition, recruitment difficulties, health problems and the significance of the brigade to Catholic Emancipation and the British Army, all against the backdrop of rising militarisation across Europe and beyond. The Irish Brigade in the British service offers a unique example of how the well-established Franco-Irish ‘Wild Geese’ military tradition began to make way for a newer Anglo-Irish military tradition during the French Revolutionary Wars, a tradition that would play an important role in British and Irish military, political and social history.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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